Lessons from the Legal Access Challenge

Remember the Legal Access Challenge? Its sponsors, Nesta and the Solicitors Regulatory Authority published their final reports on it last week. It was won jointly – as readers will know from previous posts – by a chatbot developed by Mencap and a collaborative approach to dealing with domestic violence, FLOWS. The Nesta report gives more detail on these and six other finalists (one of whom – Doteveryone – has now, unfortunately, wound itself up). These have been widely reported. The interesting new element is the surrounding analysis and the lessons.

The Challenge has much on which it can congratulate itself. It thought it was ‘perhaps the first publicised open innovation competition focused on law tech solutions to improve access to justice in the UK’.  It can surely be firmer than that – particularly if we exclude consideration of various fairly low level hackathons.  It was certainly the first such competition with the imprimatur of government funding of a significant level (£500,000 in total, $622,000, €553,000). It had two additional aims to accelerating products and services: it wanted to develop a community of people and organisations in the field; and to learn if there were regulatory barriers. 

The challenge got an acceptable breadth of response. There were, in total, 117 applicants from 69 organisations, 66 of which were commercial, 13 charities, 7 social enterprises and 6 higher education institutions. Just by itself, that range suggested a diverse community. There is, after all, nothing like the prospect of a bit of cash for bringing out potential recipients. 

As interesting as the breadth of applicants is the categorisation within which their bids were made. These are an indication of what might be further developed.

• Many of the proposals (50 per cent) involved an element of tailored guidance, for example supporting users to understand their rights and the options available to them.

• Document automation featured in nearly a quarter of applications (24 per cent).

• Better collaboration and case management was supported by 11 per cent, often featuring online platforms to facilitate co-operation between multiple stakeholders.

• Just over 9 per cent of applications supported users to collect and present evidence for their issue.

• Proposals aiming to create better links and signposting in the fragmented legal sector represented a portion of applications, with just under 8 per cent of applications featuring forms of legal marketplaces to connect customers and legal providers, and 6 per cent featuring triage proposals to signpost those needing support.

The list gives a pretty good indication of where the opportunities for innovation lie. Certainly, if you cross-check with innovation in the United States or elsewhere around the world, these are not far off the categories that you might draw up to summarise the main themes of development outside of the courts.

The great problem for innovation in relation to access to justice is financial sustainability. Actually, when the chips are down, the users have no money and government or charity is the only funder. It is, however, worth noting Nesta’s list of the possible alternatives:

Charging all direct users a modest fee to use the service that is lower than the cost of an alternative … This is often a fixed fee …

Subscription fees for direct users, instead of a one-off fee.

Freemium models, where certain aspects of a service are provided free of charge, but more complex or bespoke aspects are paid-for.

Charging secondary users of the service e.g. legal professionals, funders or insurers …

Tiered pricing for different types of users. In some cases, the same service might be available to different types of user, with more affluent users being charged more for the service to subsidise the cost for other users.

Charging for licences for a white labelled product …

Charging for insights generated by the service … An example would be charging organisations that are the subject of complaints for insight on where they need to improve …’

You can see that there might be some possibilities here but they are all going to be hard work. Hopefully, some of them will be explored in the UK or elsewhere. But, in the end, one suspects that the funder of last resort in the access to justice field is government in one shape or form. And government’s engagement is really called for in other findings of the report: ‘The full benefits of technological innovation will only be realised if individual solutions integrate to create seamless support for users. Examples of integration include linking across different stages of the customer journey and across different providers of services, whether those are commercial, not-for-profit or court providers, or regulated or unregulated providers. Further development of collaboration and trusted partnerships within the sector to ensure interoperability between individual services and, where relevant, integrations to the court system, could support this.’ 

Regulation did not, of itself, seem to be much of an obstacle to innovation. This will be reassuring to the SRA. However, the challenge raises a more fundamental question. Largely due to the Law Society’s catastrophic historic failure to deal with complaints, we have split regulation off from other areas of support for the legal profession. But, actually, the Challenge indicates very clearly that a modern regulator is not simply a prohibitor of unacceptable conduct. It is just as much an encourager of best practice. That begins to dissolve the line between a body like the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the representative body, the Law Society, and to create a competition for a role supportive of the best efforts of the profession. So, look out for Turf Wars. 

Such matters relate, however, to the domestic concerns of England and Wales. More widely, the Legal Access Challenge looks like a success that would be worth repeating elsewhere. The key issue is the right mix of flexibility and strategic foresight. If there is to be another then it could usefully begin with the list of interactive possibilities and potential funding models to identify potential mould-breakers. It wouldn’t have much to do with regulation. But who cares? It would have a lot to do with collaboration, community, partnership and leadership.

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